Dan Ornstein
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Circumcision and its discontents

For a male Jew, 'brit milah' brings together past, present and future; family, Jewish people, and humanity

A colleague of mine who is also a mohel (ritual cirumciser) tells the following joke. Two men who had grown up in the same community meet one day at a coffee shop after having been out of contact for many years. “Did you hear that Rabbi Cohen, the local mohel, died recently?” one man asks the other man. The second man replies, “Rabbi Cohen? Did you know that he did my brit milah (ritual circumcision) when I was eight days old? It was horribly traumatic.” “Really, how could it have been so traumatic? You were only eight days old, after all,” his friend replies. The second man looks at him in disbelief and retorts, “Are you kidding? After my ceremony with Rabbi Cohen, I couldn’t walk for a year!”

Anti-circumcision activists and legislators in America and Europe continue to condemn the practice of circumcision as physical and psychological child abuse and to call for it to be banned by law. The most recent public opposition from doctors in Sweden and Denmark indicates that the condemnation is not abating, and opponents trot out numerous reasons for why denying this religious right to Jews and Muslims is actually compatible with democratic values. Since I have had the recent privilege of attending a number of brit milah ceremonies of babies born in my synagogue and local community, I have been thinking a lot about what drives us so powerfully to perpetuate this ancient practice, and what those seeking to do away with circumcision find so repugnant about it.

On a very personal level, my wife’s and my decision to circumcise our (now twenty three year old) son at eight days of age was a “no brainer,” as I trust it will be for our children, should we be blessed with grandsons in the future. At my son’s brit milah, I was so overwhelmed by the power of the moment (not to mention the exhaustion of new parenting) that I went into “rabbi mode” and insisted on co-officiating with the mohel. With the benefit of many years’ experience and hindsight, I now see what that moment meant and means, at least to me.

Certainly, God’s commandment to us to physically imprint the sign of each male Jew’s covenant with God on his body is a compelling argument for me, but it is a very abstract one that echoed distantly in my own consciousness that day. Bringing our own child into the covenant of Israel was about what another mohel referred to as standing at a critical juncture between the past and the future. Our baby boy came into the world inheriting the historic, sacred legacies of three families: his actual family, the Jewish people, and humanity, all of them aspects of his past that then became his present. Just as he had no choice about joining and bearing these legacies, he had no choice about his brit milah, the literally visceral symbol of his membership in the Jewish people. Yet at precisely that moment that the mohel did his work and named our son, his past and present were already giving way to his future. He symbolically took his first steps as an individual by bellowing his protest at being restrained and prodded. Whereupon his first extended community, shouting mazal tov, sent him — to paraphrase the novelist, Grace Paley — on his journey into the open destiny of his own life. Yet no matter what he shapes that open destiny into, those legacies will always be with him, helping to shape him physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually.

As a mark upon the place of a man’s body where he generates new life, brit milah brings past, present and future, family, Jewish people, and humanity together for a male Jew. It reminds him that he is all of these sacred legacies and that he can someday grace his own sons with those legacies as well. This particularistic Jewish ritual and its symbols point a newborn’s destiny toward something much deeper and greater than his one isolated, individual life. They demand that he at least pay attention to that transcendent reality, and try to live meaningfully according to it.

Though some of them likely are anti-Semitic, I will not argue with the claims of sincerity of most circumcision opponents. I assume that, like all of us, they care deeply about children’s welfare, even though their arguments about the evils of circumcision are, like that of the man in the joke, causally non-compelling and often dangerously irrational. Still, I worry that their motivation, perhaps unrecognized, is fueled partly by secularist bigotry. It insists that like the individual adult, the individual child is the center of the world, a self contained, perfect model of the Sacred Self who should rarely, if ever, be subjected to transcendent bonds of family, history, faith and community. More starkly put, I worry that anti-circumcision activists are threatened by religion, or at least religion’s non-rational dimensions. Sadly, in their “enlightened” attempts to do away with what they see as religious primitivism and coercion, they become equally primitive and coercive.

In a free society, people choosing to opt out of circumcision should be able to do so without harassment. All I ask is that my people and other religions be assured of our unconditional rights to follow God and our faith as we deem appropriate.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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